Humphrey & Jack cover

Humphrey & Jack

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 14 reviews)

Humphrey is a retired academic. Jack is a seventeen year-old going off the rails. When Jack trashes Humphrey’s garden it is the beginning of an unlikely friendship in which both stand to gain.

‘Funny, wise and really quite moving – a tour de force’

Humphrey, a retired academic, considers himself to be a failure – at sex, at love, at life. He is acutely sensitive to noise and finds the twenty-first century bewildering. He expresses his disappointment at bi-weekly meetings with his cronies at The Seven Stars and in wrangling with his next door neighbour about her cat, Aristotle.

Seventeen year-old Jack is going off the rails. He is full of anger at the cards life has dealt him. He feels he has no future. He vents his anger in acts of vandalism and deliquency.

When Jack trashes Humphrey’s garden it is the beginning of an unlikely friendship in which both stand to gain. But when Humphrey is accused of a crime he did not commit, Jack cannot be found. Is this misfortune or a deliberate betrayal?

Ian Thomson has written a nuanced novel which is by turns hilarious and poignant. While Martin, his debut novel, was about revenge, Humphrey and Jack is about redemption. Once again his agile prose will forbid you to put it down.

Cover photograph by Helen Brace.

An excerpt from Humphrey & Jack

Cat face

Humphrey loathed cats. To be fair, he had a suspicion that he might be allergic to them and that a chance encounter could result in a rash and hideous sneezing fit. However, he reserved a particular detestation for this cat – a cat which he sincerely believed lived only to annoy him.

There had been the occasion when it had left a mangled partridge on his doorstep and Humphrey had nearly trodden on the carcass from which a cloud of nasty flies arose and settled. Recently, it had taken to parading back and forth along the terrace at night, turning the security light on and off and waking him up. He had seen the animal do it. Padding across the paving with its tail in the air, flooding his bedroom with orange light and returning when it went out. Finally, there had been the occasion on an insufferably hot night last August when Aristotle had got into his downstairs bedroom and sat on his head whilst he slept. Naturally it had frightened the hell out of him and he had grabbed the thing and flung it back out of the open window. He had not slept again that night.

Humphrey shifted slightly in his seat. Simultaneously, the blackbird flew off in his curve to the rhubarb and the cat streaked across the lawn and under the leaves.

‘Aristotle, NO!’

Humphrey rose to his feet, knocking over his Martini.

He was relieved to see that almost immediately the blackbird and his mate had flown out from the other side of the rhubarb patch and both of them had glided into an azalea bush on the other side of the garden hotly pursued by the cat which was now crouching low and stalking towards the bush.

‘Aristotle, sod off! Go on! Shoo!’ Humphrey bellowed, trying to pelt the cat with olives which fell far too short.

‘Leave them alone, Aristotle! Bugger off!’

He was suddenly aware that anyone in the public park which lay just beyond the low hedge at the bottom of the garden might have looked up and seen a sixty year old man waving his arms about and seemingly swearing at a Greek philosopher who had been dead for two and a half thousand years.

The cat, however, was blithely ignoring him and lay on the grass, head on front paws, staring into the bush.

There was nothing for it but for him to go down the stone steps on his creaking knees and chase the creature away. He picked up a stone on the way and threw it. Bingo! It hit Aristotle on the haunch and the cat turned with a yowl and sped in the opposite direction to the fence which ran between Humphrey’s garden and his neighbour’s. There, it looked back at Humphrey with a baleful stare, and then slipped like a black liquid through the narrow gap in the palings.

As Humphrey slowly climbed the steps back up to the terrace, the noise started up.

First there were the yippy dogs. Humphrey did not despise dogs as much as he did cats but he had no time for the little varieties with their high-pitched yip-yip-yip which set his teeth on edge. He abhorred these Yorkshire terriers and King Charles spaniels and dachshunds and corgis and other little rat-like lap dogs that no grown man should be seen with in public. Yet here they were, with their masters, out for their evening walk, and as soon as they were let off the leash, off they went, chasing each other in frenzied circles, and yipping away till Humphrey physically felt the noise as a tautening of the skin across his temples.

Then there was the screaming girl.

At the bottom of the park, near Prior Ingham’s Road, out of sight of Humphrey’s house except from upstairs, there was a children’s playground. Now, the sound of children playing didn’t unduly upset him. He wasn’t an ogre. The swings and slide and climbing frame were sufficiently distant for their cries to come to him on the evening breeze like childhood memories, dimmed and subdued by time.

Apart from the screaming girl.

He assumed it was a girl because no self-respecting boy would make such a racket and then keep it up, sometimes for almost an hour at a time, every blessed evening. It was an attention-seeking scream, a phoney distress scream, a diminutive diva scream. It made him want to find the child and say: ‘I’ll give you something to scream about’, and then strangle her so she couldn’t.

As usual, a game of football had started up near the bandstand and local oiks were uttering their oafish cries with every thump of the ball.

Lads on motor bikes with their silencers removed were roaring up and down Prior Ingham’s Road.

A neighbour had started up a strimmer.

Worst of all, the gang with the boom box were back. The amplified music with its thudding bass and moronically banal lyrics invaded the evening and took possession of it completely

Humphrey righted his Martini glass on its little tray and went back inside the house.

‘Just one Martini,’ his doctor had said but Humphrey set about mixing another. After all, he had spilt his first one. It’s true that there had been very little left in the glass but Humphrey was quick to persuade himself that he deserved another because of the din outside. He could still hear the banging bass rhythm in the kitchen even though it was at the other side of the house. He could actually feel the vibrations. They seemed arrhythmic and were very unsettling. He would have to tackle these youths, he thought. He could not endure this racket every night.

A second Martini led to a third and he was feeling defiant and courageous when, at about half-past nine, he set off down the garden with a walking stick to berate these selfish hoodlums over the low hedge.

Share This Page:

Reviews for Humphrey & Jack

'Humphrey and Jack': A veritable tour de force

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Monday, 12 July, 2021

Charles Dickens famously referred to himself as the ‘Inimitable’, a term appropriate also for Ian Thomson, whose novel ‘Humphrey and Jack’ (2018) is a modern masterpiece. Though long, it is immensely original and enjoyable. As in other works Thomson avoids conventional chronology , preferring frequent transitions between past and present. He also divides the narrative into four sections, these consisting of numerous sub-divisions, enabling readers to experience Humphrey’s present in relation to his past and vice versa. With numerous ‘flashbacks’ we follow the developing relationship between the somewhat eccentric, unworldly but benevolent retired academic Humphrey Icke and the typically self-centred teenager whom he rescues from a potentially dysfunctional future after rubbish from the neighbouring park has been strewn over his garden by Jack and a younger boy Marek following arguments over their playing excessively loud music. This generation gap leads to a positive and convincing relationship between Jack and Humphrey, in which the youngster, while retaining some of the self-centredness of youth, nonetheless develops appreciation and fondness for his unlikely mentor.

Disturbing scenes from Humphrey’s own boarding school and university days are shocking in places, humorous in others, but enable readers to account for his present character – an ‘innocent’ in some ways. As the novel switches backwards and forwards in time Humphrey is seen in various contexts : the hilarious burlesque with his neighbour Iolanthe Bellingham and her vile cat Aristotle, his boarding school and university days; with his friends the Evangelists whom he meets in the bar of the Seven Stars, but above all in the convincing and at times moving relationship with Jack. Thanks to Humphrey’s benevolence and encouragement there is a chance of rehabilitation in life for Jack, though the novel itself has a muted ending, as the moving death of Humphrey in hospital where, in his delusion he mistakes the male nurse Noah for Jack, takes place while his friend Hector and Jack, who have flown from Frankfurt to Birmingham, wait endlessly for a succession of trains, all of which are eventually – like Humphrey’s very existence – cancelled. It is impossible to summarise adequately a complex 400 page novel like this in such a small space, but I whole-heartedly recommend it, as I do all the other works of Ian Thomson that I have so far read.

Michael T. Rogers

Don't judge a book by its cover

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 7 July, 2020

They say that you should not judge a book by its cover and Thomson’s “Humphrey & Jack” is the perfect example of this. To the casual browser , it is unclear which target market the book serves. Is it to teenage boys ? The overview narrative suggests that it is not, that it is for the mature adult with life experience. However, the cover jacket almost seems to belie this. Should a middle aged man be seen on the bus reading this book – will fellow passengers think him strange , perhaps even someone who should be treated with utmost caution – possibly even reported.

So it is with is this story. The classic dichotomy between appearance and reality. The author brings us in gently into Humphrey’s world, allowing the reader to indulge shared world view observations, building our empathy and providing “LOL” moments, however much our protagonist would disapprove of that term.

The yawning gap in Humphrey’s life in retirement is only partially filled by trips to Waitrose, the preparation of gourmet cuisine and enjoyment of a drink or two with his love of Wagner and Verdi. The asymmetric relationship between the main characters is all too familiar to fathers the world over. However , whatever the pangs of hurt , how realistic is it for an expectation of reciprocated care and attention from someone 47 years younger?

An excellent read which gathers pace and keeps the reader hooked right to the conclusion. Spoiler alert -do not read the acknowledgements at the back of the book ahead of the main text , it will give the game away! Highly recommended.


A Modern Classic - I think so.

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 14 August, 2019

A good novel stays with you long after you’ve finished the final sentence. It changes you a little. ‘Humphrey and Jack’ is a novel like that. It goes without saying that it’s a page-turner: Ian Thomson’s plot is as engaging as ever. But lots of novels manage that. What sets this piece of fiction apart is the truth at its heart. It dares to examine the human experience in a way which makes you smile, then wince, then cry and then smile again. I like stories which challenge and reassure; which ease you into places of wonder and discomfort. I didn’t want ‘Humphrey and Jack’ to end.

- Whistlingwoman

Delightful, amusing, excellent story

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 8 August, 2019

Well I do not know why it took me so long to pick up this book, but once started could not put it down for a moment. A real page turner that was full of surprises and wonderfully worded insights into life. There is so much to say but do not want to spoil it for anyone else, just that Humphrey and Jack will be recognised by most of us and I can guarantee you will be engrossed until the very end. On many occasion found myself laughing out loud. Cannot wait to read Ian Thomson’s next book

- Michael May

Touching and thought provoking

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 26 June, 2019

Isn’t there a little bit of Humphrey in all us….well those of a certain age! Perhaps this is why I adored him so much. This delightful book shows us the importance of friendship and finding it in the most unlikely of places. Thomson’s writing is so beautifully descriptive and he doesn’t shy away from making his characters rather unlikable at the beginning, its only when they begin to grow and develop our opinion shifts. A surprise ending added to the sheer joy of reading this book.

- Julie Fox

Response from Ian Thomson, Author

Thank you. So pleased you became fond of Humphrey as the book grows on you!

A delightful, entertaining and absorbing read

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 23 March, 2019

Humphrey and Jack is very much Ian Thomson’s largest-scale work to date. Nonetheless, embarking on its 400 pages should not be a remotely daunting prospect. On the contrary, it is a delightful, absorbing and entertaining read and there are many laughs to be had on the journey.

At the start of the story, neither of the protagonists is in a good place. Humphrey, a retired academic, considers that life has passed him by. Teenager Jack has had a difficult upbringing and is going off the rails. Although Humphrey is, as he freely admits, grumpy, miserable and isolated, we are drawn into his world and, given that the narrative is very much flavoured by his voice, we enjoy and may even secretly relish his jaundiced view of the world. And there are some beautifully written passages which are almost poetic and which strongly hint at his ability to respond to the beauty of the world and a sensitivity which he usually keeps well hidden, but which we, the readers, are privileged to glimpse.

One advantage of the expansive scale is that by the time the delinquent Jack comes along, we feel we have got to know and even quite like Humphrey. We have witnessed him together in the pub with his cronies and we have become familiar with his prejudices, feuds and eccentricities, his complete puzzlement in the face of many aspects of the twenty-first century and his visceral hatred of all kinds of noise. All of this is conveyed in narrative which is frequently hilarious.

At first, Jack seems to be the embodiment of everything Humphrey dislikes and so it is a real achievement that their growing and ultimately redemptive friendship is described so plausibly. Of course there are still plenty of aspects of Jack’s world which alienate Humphrey and leave him baffled. The description of his discovery of the communications between Jack and his friends on social media, very much related through Humphrey’s own voice, is really funny. In spite of all this, each participant in this unlikely friendship provides the other with a previously unknown sense of purpose and a reason for living.

Humphrey is intelligent enough to realise that, having helped Jack to create a worthwhile future for himself, he must be prepared to let him go off to find his own way in the world, but this is nonetheless a painful process. In the final chapters we come to see how brilliantly the novel is constructed, although no further explanation of this can be given without unfortunate spoilers. The last few pages are genuinely moving.

I hope that many will wish to see for themselves, as this book deserves to be enjoyed by a very wide readership. It can be recommended very warmly indeed.

- L. Bromley

Character is Destiny

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 6 March, 2019

It’s almost impossible to write about Humphrey and Jack without giving spoiler alerts every two sentences, so closely are plot, character and theme woven. So, after this, there are no further alerts.

The plot is deceptively simple: an embittered retired lecturer befriends a semi-delinquent youth and both are redeemed. However, the character and social shading of the book are remarkable, and readers are treated to 300+ pages of Thomson’s elegant writing.

And here lies part of the skill of the novel: the characters reveal themselves and evolve through action and dialogue, not through the author’s narrative and commentary on the psychological aspects of what is going on. This makes the reader think about what he is reading, which many readers will find too great an effort – but then, they don’t deserve the rewards.

Readers are seduced into cosy cynicism with the early encounters with “the Evangelists” a group of grumpy old men who meet in a pub and have ritual rants about the state of the world in general and individuals in particular. Thomson contrasts these very amusing but shallow social commentaries with the genuine communications between Humphrey and Jack.

At first, the contrast is ironic as neither Humphrey nor Jack are particularly likeable at the beginning of the book. Part of Thomson’s skill is that he refrains from trying to make us like them before it is time, and then when our opinions shift, it is because of how they evolve, not what we are told about them. We watch both characters grow as they rescue each other: Humphrey helps Jack fulfil his academic potential, while Humphrey escapes from the inward, cynical life he has been leading to learn new things and set new goals.

This is a book about the redemptive power of friendship. Both Humphrey and Jack are better people for having encountered each other. Neither is perfect. Humphrey remains the product of his age and experience with the concomitant virtues and vices, as does Jack, but their shared love of learning, good food, companionship, humour and their partially shared view of the larger world brings them close.

The supporting characters are well observed, too. Hector and Althea emerge as true friends, as does his former student, Tom – all of whom are faithful allies when Humphrey’s life is suddenly turned upside-down.

Thomson handles his themes without stating them: the double edge of social media with its benefits of instant contact and the horrors of everything being preserved forever and taken out of context, and the corrosive effect of the media working in tandem with a police force under too much pressure to produce a quick result. Both are shown with all their lack of consideration and dehumanising power, and yield the salient lesson that our ability to embarrass ourselves has never been greater.

I am at a loss to find a book to compare Humphrey and Jack to; its combination of the contemporary with the traditional make it gratifyingly difficult to categorise. The writing is fluid and erudite – full of rewarding observations, allusions and jokes; it is also a challenging book that makes demands on the reader to think about what is going on and why. It is not a book for lazy readers but for those prepared to participate (like those prepared to invest in real friendships) the rewards are great.


Sardonic humour

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 19 February, 2019

‘An intriguing tale spiced with lively encounters and astute observations, full of humour and wit. Thomson’s fascinating historical facts are particularly enlightening and will have you saying “Really, I didn’t know that.” His character portrayals are underscored by sardonic humour which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved this book so much I read it twice within a couple of weeks. Awaiting Thomson’s next book with eager anticipation.’

- Spritzergirl

Humphrey and Jack - Loved it!

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 2 February, 2019

Just finished Humphrey and Jack. I wasn’t holding out much hope before I started reading as it’s not the kind of book that I would normally read as I am more inclined to read sci-fi. I really enjoyed it all the way through from start to finish. I won’t be using flowery language to describe the experience, but let me just say that the characters are portrayed in such a convincing manner that I was hooked, and I will be seeking out Thomson’s other books in the very near future.

- Patman

Highly recommended

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Saturday, 26 January, 2019

Ian Thomson thank you for a wonderful read. I have spent a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in front of an open fire, reading this novel. I shed some tears, I have laughed, and I have been struck by your sensitive, nuanced depiction of the relationship between an older child and a parent, albeit surrogate. Beautifully written. Bravo 👏 👏👏

- Rhian Williams

Submit A Review